Sunday, May 18, 2003

I hate Sven Birkerts.

He's got a review in the NY Times today of Margaret Atwood's new book that represents everything that makes me ill in mainstream/academic reviewing. He writes:

"Science fiction will never be Literature with a capital 'L,' and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character...Some will ask, of course, whether there still is such a thing as 'Literature with a capital "L."' I proceed on the faith that there is. Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don't think enough of them to overturn it."

Never mind that Birkerts' claim is entirely tautological: SF can't be Literature because Literature is precisely that which is unmarked and pure, lacking genre, which masks the fact that Birkerts simply assumes that Literature is restricted to that which descends from the 19th-century realist novel. What gets me is what I'd call the elegiac smugness of it all, the sense that

1. the critic is totally confident that he is the last guardian of "Literature," and

2. the critic is equally confident that we live in a fallen era where "Literature" is no longer possible.

Birkerts is kind of a younger, hipper Harold Bloom, a literary doomsday prophet whose primary interest in the contemporary scene is to tell us how much better it was in the good old days. He presents his reactionary stance as somehow edgy at the same time that he's utterly dismissive of anyone who would challenge his authority as a literary arbiter.

What's so saddening about criticism like this is that it can only be entirely dead to anything new; it can never see contemporary writing as a place of excitement and discovery, but only as a realm of shortcoming and failure. Perhaps Birkerts' kind of criticism is comforting to crotchety old men who want to bemoan how the world has fallen since their day. It can only be poisonous to anyone who is still alive.

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